Who is the Southern Woman?

BY JULIA WILHELM
 

If you need advice, Druette knows. If you need prayer, Druette prays. If you need someone you can count on to get the job done humbly, with a servant’s heart, it’s Druette.

Druette Killingsworth was born on December 30, 1931 to Cora and Coley in the rural community of Jack, Alabama. Like many girls born at this time in the Deep South, she was given no middle name. When she grew older, probably 17 or 18, she would marry and take her husband’s last name.

For Druette, that didn’t happen until age 24—years beyond the norm in the South at the time. She became Druette Killingsworth Towles after marrying Thomas Wendell Towles, another native south Alabamian. Finally, she could pursue her heart’s desire of Southern womanhood: to become a wife and mother.

Her husband, a carpenter, worked hard to fulfill what he felt was his God-given duty to provide for the family. Like many Southern women, Druette felt her God-given duties were to remain faithful to the church and support her husband and children. This meant cooking (amazingly well), sewing, gardening, home remedies, and general frugality. To make ends meet, this also meant working outside the home for several years at a local clothing factory.

Speaking of God-given duties, many Pentecostals in Druette’s time felt physical appearance was scripturally mandated to be modest, simple and humble—and that was for women only, in most minds. Women grew their hair long, typically wearing it in a bun. But with four kids and home and garden work to be done, Druette found her short hairstyle easier to manage and broke with the practice.

Call it Southern values or the trademark of the Traditionalist generation, Druette and Tom always sought to establish foundational principles for their family. Working hard, seeking the Lord, and helping others were the pillars of the Towles way. Perhaps it was this tenacity to conviction that earned Druette the respect she had in the community, in spite of not fitting the cultural mold.

Most parents say they want a better life for their children than they’ve had. Druette lived this, encouraging equally her daughters and sons to pursue college degrees, all while holding fast to the traditional upbringing she and Tom established.

Then, there’s me, her grand-daughter; twenty-five years old, no husband, cooking skills that barely stretch beyond a slow-cooker, almost no accent. I don’t like country music. My fair skin doesn’t enjoy being outdoors. My goals include a happy family, but also career progression and making a difference in my circle of influence. Many times, I feel like a speck of Blue in a sea of Red. And I sometimes feel a weight of disappointment around colleagues and strangers.

It sends me into a spiral of questions: Why do I relate less and less to the context I was born and raised in? What is different about me and my Southern peers that causes such philosophical and political differences? Is there a way to stay true to my Southern roots while embracing the new convictions I’ve adopted?

Then, the real question appears front and center in my mind: What does it mean to be a woman in the South?

Here, female strength is often labeled, judged, and mostly hushed. My mother, for example, has been called angry and a “man hater” for her confidence and unapologetic persistence. I can’t confirm my grandmother was called any names, but I’m sure her unconventional life choices earned a few eye rolls. Southern culture is often called slow to progress, and in many cases, I’ve observed that to be true. The South isn’t winning many popularity contests, with the world or with me. Yet, my roots are deep here.

Instead of a defeated sigh, I smile and hold my head high knowing my life has been built with Druette’s notion of Southern womanhood. The progression in my family from my grandmother to me was absolutely on-purpose. Maybe it’s the Steel Magnolias that make up the framework everyone else holds on to.

My grandmother would’ve never described herself as a feminist. Doing the right thing no matter what wasn’t anything worth labeling; it was just the right thing to do.

Druette’s strength will always lead the women (and men) in my family to show the South our mantra, as well as the mantra of many other women in this region: Being a woman of the South means a strong heart for equality and respect. People can and will surprise you. It’s not something you can label, it’s just who we are. In Druette’s memory, my goal will be to continue to be surprised and to be a surprise for others around me—from the Southeast and beyond.


Julia is a southeast Tennessee native whose wanderlust extends way beyond southern borders. By day, she’s a communicator for a Fortune 500 company. The rest of the time, she loves spending time with her boyfriend, friends and family, falling deep into a rabbit hole of a new show or movie, and snuggling with her French bulldog, Sassy.

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